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Ride-hailing: Helping or hurting?

This post was written by Johanna Cimilluca and Hannah Bernstein, students at Northeastern University who worked with Green Streets this fall.

Living in Boston, it’s clear just how many different transportation options there are, whether you’re going to work, school or elsewhere. But the jury has been out for quite a while on whether ridesharing services such as Uber or Lyft are helping more people live a car-light life or just contributing to the traffic, congestion and pollution already so present here.

A recent Wired article looked into the ongoing claim that we’ve entered a new age where cars are no longer needed, at least in cities such as New York, Boston, San Francisco, etc. We now have an abundance of alternatives to car ownership - Uber/Lyft, buses, subways, bike share etc. - and some cities are starting to implement policies prioritizing transit over cars, such as the recent ban on cars on 14th street in NYC. But what the article actually found is that personal car ownership in the United States has increased, not decreased, in the past 10 years, including in cities such as NYC where alternatives are more abundant. Bruce Schaller, a former transportation official in New York City, authored a report in January that discovered the cities where Uber and Lyft are most used also had the largest increase in vehicles.

These interesting dynamics recently came up during a planning call between Green Streets organizers and three Northeastern students who are working with the Initiative this semester. Johanna, a new graduate student, recently moved to Boston from Knoxville, Tennessee. She barely uses rideshare services here, but in Knoxville, she could go for miles and miles in a rideshare and it would often cost her less than $5, with that cost including a good tip.

Since being in Boston, she hasn’t taken advantage of ridesharing services as often — she said she feels spoiled with the public transportation system! Because of that, she was unaware of the cost differences until resorting to it one day when she was in a hurry. Now, she feels that the services cost too much for the short distances that she would have to go.

Hannah, a senior undergraduate student, had different experiences with ridesharing services. She works for a catering company in Boston, which means she often has to travel into the suburbs away from public transportation to staff events. The company will often use Uber to provide carpools for her and her coworkers, and they are paid half pay for any time they spend traveling in that carpool.

Burke, also a senior undergraduate student, said his work will reimburse them for using rideshare when going to specific work-related events. Once, he asked an Uber driver about what routes people tend to request. His driver said people from Boston go as far as the Cape or New York City, and that there are some people that utilize these services for their daily transportation needs.

These conversations led to the Walk/Ride Day question theme for October, which centered on ridesharing and whether people use it for work, to travel long distances, or simply when it’s more convenient. We are now in the process of analyzing the data and are eager to share them with the Green Streets community.

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